The Balance of Discipline

by O. P. Martin

Love and discipline are needed in every individual and household. But, can we get too much or not enough of one or the other? How can we know how to get the balance just right?

4 Quadrants

There are four quadrants possible with the two axes of love and discipline. Most households in America today fall into the permissive category, in which affirmation is lavished on the child, but correction is withheld. The parents seem afraid to discipline the child for fear that this will damage their developing psyche. This is a grand myth that needs to be broken. It is not true that man is born basically good, only requiring high self-esteem. The Bible clearly teaches that corporal punishment is appropriate and often necessary. "NIV Proverbs 22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him." "NIV Proverbs 13:24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." It is interesting that the Hebrew word used for the receptacle for the rod is the "middle of the back". If you measure, you will find the proper place God made for spanking. On the other hand, not every child needs a lot of severe punishment. Some children are more compliant and sensitive; the Lord will help find what is effective in each case. One suggestion is: corporal punishment is a viable tool which we can opt to exercise in cases of willful defiance.

There are a few households which, in their zeal to provide discipline, fly off to an opposite extreme by neglecting the love. This second quadrant, disciplinarianism, too, is undesirable. These are the parents who believe the children do not need representation in their little family government, even though they are taxed. This is not true because no parent, no matter how considerate, can think of all the things the child needs by guessing; there needs to be a feedback loop. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 we read, "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone." Not every problem is a "warn" problem. Sometimes encouragement or help are needed. The Lord will provide discernment. The King James has it right when it renders KJV Ephesians 6:4 "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." The two nouns are "training" and "instruction", but the often-overlooked verb "to bring up" has the image of mother's milk, which brings in the concept of nurture. Finally, we should take care: "NIV Colossians 3:21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged."

A third quadrant provides neither instruction nor support. This is neglectful, and produces the most harm for children.

No, the category to which we should all aspire is the fourth quadrant, the well-balanced approach. This provides warmth and encouragement in the tactile, verbal, material, time, and service, while gently providing instruction and punishments as necessary, to both model and teach attitude and behavior, as God does. (Deuteronomy 30:19 "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live".) Friends have told me that striking a good balance is no easy task. If you are a parent, don't give up!

1st Time Obedience

Younger children should be taught first-time obedience. Older children should still be expected to obey, but we should be teaching them to think critically for themselves more. In all cases, we should explain the reasons in an age-appropriate manner, but this is not a substitute for requiring obedience, rather the two go hand-in-hand. One or the other is not enough. NIV Proverbs 29:19 "A servant cannot be corrected by mere words; though he understands, he will not respond." A person usually must learn respect before they will pay attention to even the best of lessons.

A small child starts out very early in life with some degree of a natural inclination to resist the will of the parent(s). When this happens, the job of discipline has begun. Do not get into the habit of counting to three unless you want the child to learn that disobedience is okay until the parent loses temper. That does not produce the well-ordered household that God desires. What will be done when it becomes important, for example, if the child steps into a roadway? Learn to calmly inform the kid of consequences for disobedience, then follow through. Require a response so they acknowledge that they understand the rules.

God wants us to obey Him from the heart. First-time obedience is not the end goal, but it is the first step in reaching the child's heart and training him or her in self-control which is a fruit of the Spirit.

It is also necessary to model all the behavior that you wish to teach. More is caught than taught. Do you keep your promises? Do you tell them the truth? Do you sometimes tell "nice" lies? Say what you mean and mean what you say. Persevere. Encourage them with rewards when they obey you the first time or two. Pray. And, above all, train them with the Word of God since that is what will penetrate their heart to learn to love the Lord and desire to live righteously before Him, rather than just fearing consequences.

Dr. Dobson speaks of shaping the will without breaking the spirit. Different children have different temperaments and require different levels of positive and negative conditioning. And, if you are one who, after an honest look at yourself, have to admit that you have abused the child, you may need help to establish boundaries for yourself, and help to share in the administration of the discipline.

Love and Respect

So far we have only discussed the parent / child relationship. But, children grow up and start families of their own. What is the biblical model for proper marital relationships? The Bible teaches that man and wife have distinct roles, characterized by love and respect, respectively.

The man must love his wife. What does that mean? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us. Love is patient (willing to suffer long). It is kind, love (seeking good feelings for others, more than itself). "Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her". A godly man who is sacrificing his self-interests when necessary to provide for the good of the family, financially, emotionally, intellectually, sexually, and spiritually, will not for long consider abandoning his loved ones because of a mid-life crisis or some other excuse, because he is devoted to obeying God. It is the man's responsibility to lead by being the first to show love. This does not mean that he entirely gives up being his own unique person.

In the Bible, the wife's primary responsibility to the husband is to respect him. What does this mean? The Greek word used in Ephesians 5:33 means in this sense to venerate and obey. The Bible also uses the word "submit". These are not popular ideas in today's feministic culture, but it is essential. God created order, and when we violate it, expect consequences. Of course, we do not want to fly off to another extreme as they do in the Muslim world. Respect does not mean that one ought to be forbidden to provide feedback on the faults of the one revered. This applies to children as well as spouses. "NIV Proverbs 19:20 Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise." None of us is perfect, and we need to be approachable to learn from our mistakes.

A noble man will rule all the members of his household well. He will love them and gently require subjection as well. This function is not well supported by the culture, but is critically needed.


What happens in divorce? Someone feels entitled to take for themselves something that the Lord has not permitted. Then, the home is broken. As a result, the parents often get into a contest to see who can be the child's "best friend" and discipline is neglected. Then, since the child grows up feeling entitled to all kinds of things that are not rightfully his own, the cycle continues. The attitude of the criminal is one of entitlement to break the law. No wonder there is such a rise in crime.

What we need is to start with the proper fear of God and end up with the love of God. All of us have broken some of the Ten Commandments, at least in our hearts, and God's holy requirement is perfection! If one thinks they may be good enough, consider the illustration of the white sheep whose filth is revealed when contrasted with the backdrop of a pure snowbank. So, then, since the Lord says that we deserve hell, anything that we receive in this life is better than what we deserve. It is when we realize that Christ took the penalty for us and we commit our lives to Him that we receive peace and gratefully learn to forgive and follow in the footsteps of love. There is joy in serving the Lord.


Why do we have such a growing obesity problem in America? The world keeps telling us its answer: cut back on sugar and fat in the diet. Exercise. These things may help somewhat, but should we think that sugar is such an enemy as we hear when nutritionists seem to have a vendetta against it? After all, God created fruit and sugar cane for us to eat originally in the Garden of Eden. Is sugar really the cause of obesity? Let's think about this. Fifty or 100 years ago, people were not eating sugar-free cookies. This is obviously not the answer!

Diet has some importance: animal fat was frowned upon in the Levitical code, while vegetable oil was encouraged. We probably do exercise less in today's culture than we used to. But let me suggest that there may also be a correlation between the decline of discipline and the rise of obesity. I have spoken with people and have overheard others in the supermarket who say things like, "Oh, my child won't eat that." What is wrong with the picture? When I was a child, my parents set reasonable limits on our eating habits, and we were expected to obey. We could have a sugary breakfast cereal if we also had a more healthful one. We were allowed three small pieces of candy after we finished our dinner. Parents are responsible to guide the child while he or she is too young to make wise decisions yet. "KJV Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

This may not work the same way every time, and the child will grow up to be responsible for their own choices, but eventually the child will be thankful for instilling in them, during impressionable years, a taste for healthful habits.


Parents are responsible before God for the training of the children. The school system, counselors, nannies, even church all help, but the bottom line is that the child's primary source of guidance will be from the parents. That is how our brains are wired. The man is chiefly responsible to head up the household, and to provide God's boundaries for the home within which creativity is encouraged, and he is committed to the well-being of his family, sacrificing self as necessary, following the love of Jesus.

© copyright 2006-2007, O. P. Martin